donderdag 3 december 2015

Levinas and Wittgenstein

The philosopher Bob Plant devoted a book to the comparison of the philosophers Wittgenstein and Levinas. In it he arrives at some remarkable parallels, which are surprising because Levinas in several of his works denounces what he calls ‘formal logic’, a philosophical genre brilliantly practiced by Wittgenstein in his early years.

Indeed, I for myself see more similarities emerge in the second half of Wittgenstein’s life, when he turned away from strict logic. There themes start to become apparent that I recognize from the early and middle period work of Levinas. So, we are talking here about the late Wittgenstein and the earlier Levinas.

One of the parallels that I note there between the two philosophers is attention to human vulnerability and pain. These phenomena are fundamental in their eyes, Levinas ánd Wittgenstein see them as crucial in the interaction with other people.

In the case of Levinas this is evident in his attention to the potential violence of thinking for someone else. In doing so the thinker can cause an injury with the other, by transgressing his boundary too far. Simultaneously Levinas says: the thinker can note that injury, and therefrom recovery of the relationship may follow.

Wittgenstein, in turn, discusses the obviousness of pain. First of all of his own pain, to himself: “I can not be mistaken if I say that I have pain and that is why I can not be sure of my pain.” He means to say: this is so close that it is not a matter of knowing for sure.

For someone else’s pain the situation may be different, yet few things are as convincing as perception of pain in another. “Just try, in an actual case, to doubt the fear or the pain of another.” For Wittgenstein signaling that pain is as directly as it is for Levinas.

Another parallel is in the reluctance of both against generalizations. The late Wittgenstein does not like the universal explanation of phenomena. He does not draw general lines around essences, and condemns the disregard for the individual case with which his own early work was imbued. He is quick to point to differences between things and between people, which is reflected in his statement: “I'll teach you differences”.

Similarly Levinas in his early and mid-term periods describes phenomena that are not universal, such as responsibility for the other and think shame. These phenomena do not occur anywhere and anytime with anybody, but may or may not occur, with some people and not with others. Here Levinas likewise shows a break with essence thinking.

A third parallel is found in the mutual appreciation of obviousness which is rather  located at the surface than in the deep. For example, in dealing with other people according to Wittgenstein our perception of external phenomena suffices to read what is in someone. You really do know for sure when you see someone suffering pain, for that you don’t need any ‘intermediary act of recognition’ such as other philosophers suggest.

Besides pain, for Wittgenstein also someone’s face is a potential source of evidence to which no subsidiary means are needed. “A facial expression – or the image thereof – tells us more about a person, then when we try to describe what goes on in his head. The face is the soul of the body,” Wittgenstein writes.

This is similar to the importance Levinas attributes to ‘the human face’. Not for nothing that was the title of a book by which Levinas was introduced in the Netherlands in the sixties.

Finally, there is a common shortcoming that both thinkers are reproached for by critics. Namely that their work has little political relevance. That accusation may, I think, be adequate. Probably that’s what you get if you’re obsessed with the question of what is good, truthful communication. Because that’s an obsession they did share indeed.

Also see Wittgenstein as Talmudist